Writing sample by Aaron Grad.
© 2012 Aaron Grad. All rights reserved.

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In Their Own Words
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Interview by Aaron Grad

You have collaborated with Orpheus twice now, first playing Chopin on the East Coast in 2004 and then Mozart on the West Coast in 2006. How have the experiences been for you?

I am crazy about working with them! The time playing Chopin was really quite unique for me. I had never met a group of musicians who wanted to rehearse the Chopin concerto so much, who know it from the inside. The flaw of the Chopin concerto is that the orchestration is not brilliant, and the better the orchestra plays, the less it gets noticed. Orpheus absorbed this piece in their collective cells and really wanted to rehearse something that doesn’t gratify them particularly, even though it makes a very beautiful musical combination. Mozart in California was entirely a different thing; the participation of the orchestra in Mozart concertos is very much that of an equal partner. Orpheus is willing to take individual responsibility as well as lots and lots of rehearsal time, which is necessary to talk things over. When we go onstage, it is a partnership of an intensity that I rarely get, even with the best orchestras and best conductors, because I am in it together with my colleagues. I’m not just the foreign soloist of the week who has been imported. It is wonderful having this direct relationship with them as partners, and actually it will be most wonderful of all on the Beethoven Fourth Concerto.

What makes Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto such a good piece to play with Orpheus?

Let me start with the piece itself. We know the great Beethoven, the scowling Beethoven, the triumphant Beethoven shaking his fists at the heavens, the journey from light to dark, the heroic, Romantic Beethoven, and he is all that. What we tend not to remember about him, even we music lovers who do play him a lot, is that much of his music is very lyric and gentle. He is not a great tune writer like Mozart or Schubert or Dvořák, who are just profligate with tunes, but, in the first movement of this piece, Beethoven sings like a bird for 20 minutes. He turns out melodies one after another, and each one is beautiful and celestial and indeed Mozartian. There are passing clouds and poignancy, and there is quite an intense emotional storm in the middle of the first movement, but the basic feeling is of ecstatic lyricism.

What are your thoughts on the very unusual beginning of the concerto?

Beethoven did something extraordinary in this piece, even if we no longer feel it as extraordinary because we have had 200 years of music since then: He starts with the piano. Mozart almost did it, but Beethoven actually gives the first phrase of what would be the normal tutti of a concerto to the piano. It is only half a phrase that needs an answer, and the answer comes from the orchestra. The piano’s first phrase begins in G major, but suddenly the orchestra answers in B major, which is radiant and very far away. The piano plays at a piano dynamic and the orchestra plays pianissimo, so the answer is as if from another world. That already gives you an idea of the heavenly context we are in, the spiritual, magical realm.

Speaking of a magical realm, there is the famous line about the slow movement representing “Orpheus taming the furies”—that would make you “Orpheus” taming Orpheus!

That idea is taken terribly seriously in Germany, even to this day. The second movement is just known as “Orpheus.” It is a romantic allusion, but it’s appropriate. Because here Beethoven has a concept in mind that is fiercely dramatic. The strings are ferocious, vertical, harsh and rhythmic, in a very stressful, confrontational way, and the piano then answers lyrically and horizontally, in a totally unrelated mood. The piano prays very softly in the face of this menace, and then the orchestra menaces again, and the piano just does not change its character. A bit like water on the stone, gradually the piano melts the orchestra’s resistance almost into silence, and then finally the piano can sing its short but very sad song. It is an amazing dramatic interaction.

After such drama, Beethoven pivots effortlessly to the finale. How would you describe that moment?

The pivot is wonderful; the moment the finale starts you know you are in a totally different emotional space. It is extraordinarily exuberant. The slow movement ends with both parties in absolute harmony, beautiful but very dark, then the miracle happens that Beethoven goes from darkest to the lightest. When I hear this last movement, I just wonder if any human being can ever be that happy. We’ve all had these feelings, but most of us cannot sustain them for the ten minutes that Beethoven does.

It seems incredible and quite unique that we can marvel at so many aspects of this concerto with barely a mention of the piano part.

There is nothing of the display vehicle about this piece. There are some beautiful displays for the piano, and it is very hard to play, but it is not about the soloist showing himself off; it is about the soloist as a member of a larger community. That’s why this is the perfect piece to play with Orpheus. (Although there are many of those!)

In light of your 2008 Grammy award for a recording of solo Beethoven sonatas, would you say your understanding of Beethoven’s solo repertoire informs your concerto performances?

Always. All of Beethoven talks to all the rest of Beethoven. The musical principles at work in this piece, the interrelationships with the orchestra and the dramatic contents, get mirrored in the solo works, or get pre-cooked as it were. The piano was Beethoven’s primary instrument, and he tried his ideas out on the piano all the time, so the piano was in a way his laboratory for composition. He could have the results immediately because he could play them himself. Having played all of the sonatas and recorded them, it reminds me—to come back to my original comment about the concerto—that so much more of Beethoven is gentle or warm than we tend to think of. Sometimes we underestimate that side of him.